Q&A with Enyi Okoronkwo on the settings, costumes and rehearsal processes behind Tartuffe, The Imposter at the National Theatre

Alberto Tondello spoke with Enyi Okoronkwo, who will play Damis in John Donnelly’s new adaptation of Molière’s Tartuffe at the National Theatre. 

AT: Tartuffe is a landmark of French theatre, which has continuously been performed and adapted in the last 350 years. What can you tell me about this new adaptation by John Donnelly? Is the setting the same or has it been made more contemporary?
EO: It’s on the backdrop of our current moment in our culture. However, I think the placing of the period is still quite dystopian, exaggerating a lot of things that come from our culture and talking about all the ways in which we have messed up at the moment. 

How similar is the text compared to the original? 
The original play is written in rhyming verses. When you translate it in English you realise how easy it is to rhyme in French and how difficult it becomes to follow the same style in English. What John has done is to rhyme in the kind of way that Shakespeare uses rhymes: to heighten emotions. The use of rhymes becomes very deliberate. Instead of being constrained by it, John has weaponised rhyming to use it as he wants to. It has its own voice, it’s Molière meets John Donnelley. 

Were you free to decide you own accent, or did you have some guidelines?
The base of the play should be here in London, so our scope was a bit narrowed by that. The main family in the play is also very rich and in this country wealth denotes a particular type of accent. I am using a middle-class English voice. But because Tartuffe is an outsider by definition, it was really important for the director Denis O’Hare to choose the right accent, and that was discussed at the beginning of the rehearsal process.

What is your role in the play?
I play Damis, Orgon’s son. He is the subject of banishment who gets kicked out after thinking that he has exposed Tartuffe’s duplicity. It is the moment that leads to the climax of the first half, which I definitely won’t reveal. What I would say is that in the midst of those emotions something else comes out which makes you go “oooh…I’m starting to understand what is going on a bit more”. When I first read the play, I kept wondering why this guy [Tartuffe] who is obviously not good for the house and the family is allowed to stay there. That is revealed and unpicked as the play goes on in a very satisfying way. 

Enyi Okoronkwo and Denis O’Hare in Tartuffe.

What do you like or dislike the most about your character?
He is far more emotional than I am. He feels very deeply and very quickly, but he is also like a child because the feeling goes deep but if another feeling comes in, he forgets about the previous one. What I dislike the most personally is his trousers, because they are so tight. And the way he dresses is completely different from mine. I think his watch alone would cost more than the clothes I’m wearing right now. 

I gather the costumes are contemporary then?
They are meant to be ambiguous. I think the distance created by that and its unsettling nature draws your interest more than knowing you are supposed to be seeing yourself in the play. I think that’s what you do when you go to the theatre anyway. You try and relate, but when you put people in a situation when they have no other choice but to relate as you are trying to show them themselves you can actually create more distance. I think it’s a really clever thing that Blanche McIntyre and John came up with and talked about in the first rehearsals. The play is supposed to be ambiguous as it could be set in any time. 

Do you have any sense that the play or your character have evolved from the first rehearsal?
My goodness yes. Always for me anyway: I’m a late bloomer. I would see things really clearly for the first time when I put on my costume in its entirety. That makes you move differently, it changes your character completely. Thinking of growth in terms of my character is often what I’m trying not to do because if you obsess about that you are often not doing your job properly. In terms of the play as a whole, I have been trying to read it a lot as we have been going on, and if it starts to make more sense to me because of what I am doing with my character, and a lot of stuff reveals itself, then I know that it is moving in the rehearsal room. And that has happened with Tartuffe. 

Enyi Okoronkwo and Kitty Archer in rehearsal.

If you had to choose three words to describe the show, what would they be?
I’d say fast, funny, and retrospective. It makes you realise so much when you actually look back at it after having seen it. You think about all the times that you laughed but then you go back and you realise there is a deeper meaning to those moments. 

This is your second acting job at the National Theatre. How has it been?
I was straight out of drama school when I was part of wonder.land, so I was not as assured as to where my part of the collaboration came from. That first-day-of-school feeling this time left a lot quicker than it did before. We did wonder.landat the Manchester International Festival first, then we came back and did it at the Olivier and all through that I felt like I had won a golden ticket and I should just be grateful. Whereas now as well as being grateful I see the play as work I have to contribute to, and I can contribute to otherwise I wouldn’t be in the room. But the rehearsal process has been so fun both times. 

How is a normal rehearsal day?
The way Tartuffe is written is that it is just a bunch of two-handers and three-hander amongst a very big cast, so you are not called all the time. Which is a discipline you have to get used to because if you are not on for a couple of days you don’t want to come back and start from the beginning, you want to build on what you did last time. Blanche has the whole cast meet once every three days, which I think is a deliberate and very good thing as you still feel like you are part of a company.

If you could choose one show from the past to see, what would it be?
I would have to say Blue/Orange here at The National with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Bill Nighty, and Andrew Lincoln. Just because it is one of my favourite plays. If I had seen Chiwetel in Blue/Orange, even though I was probably 4 at the time, I would have fallen in love with acting even earlier. Selfish reason I know.

Any long-term project that you would like to share?
Trying to pay my rent? That’s my long-term project. I’m also doing some writing so I would like to see how far that goes. 

Our thanks to Enyi for taking the time to talk with London Student and to The National Theatre for organizing the interview. Tartuffe, The Imposter is at The National Theatre until 30thApril, 2019.

Feature and production photographs: Manual Harlan.

Alberto Tondello arrived in the UK in 2010 to undertake his studies in English Literature. He graduated from Queen Mary, University of London in 2013, and was awarded his MA from Oxford University in 2014 with a comparative project on Samuel Beckett and Italo Calvino. After teaching English in Switzerland for three years, Alberto is back in the UK to work on James Joyce and inanimate matter at UCL.

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